The nopal cactus is a member of the Opuntia family and grows primarily in the southwestern region of the United States, as well as in Mexico. Another name for the nopal cactus is prickly pear cactus. The plant yields an edible fruit called the cactus pear; nutritional supplements made from the nopal plant are also available in a powdered form. Consumption of the nopal cactus can carry a variety of health benefits, ranging from aiding digestion to lowering high cholesterol levels.
Blood Sugar Stabilization
People with diabetes, as well as those without blood glucose issues, may notice a drop in their glucose levels when using nopal as a dietary supplement. Researchers from the University of Vienna reported in a 2002 of the journal Wiener klinische Wochenschrif that the prickly pear was effective in reducing the spike in blood sugar levels that occurs after a meal. The online resource Natural News explains that taking prickly pear can play an important role in stabilizing glucose levels without causing damage to the liver, a condition that can sometimes arise when using conventional glucose-lowering medications.
Reduction in Oxidative Stress
The August 2004 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) states that the vitamin C levels in the edible cactus pear fruit can cause a decrease of oxidative stress in the body. The Baltimore-based scientific research company Genox explains that oxidative stress is the damage that occurs in the body's cells from free radicals and other toxins that are introduced into the body. AJCN states that when a person lacks antioxidant protection, medical conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease can ensue. Vitamin C, of which nopal cactus is a rich source, is an antioxidant. As reported in the AJCN study, people who participated in research trials and consumed cactus pear were found to have a higher antioxidant capacity in their blood plasma, or a lower level of oxidative stress, than those who did not eat cactus pear.
Lower Cholesterol Levels
Another health benefit of the nopal cactus is its ability to lower cholesterol. A 2005 issue of The Barron Report explains that nopal consumption can lower triglyceride levels and can help reverse the ration of the "good" and "bad" types of cholesterol (HDL and LDL, respectively) because the chemical makeup of the plant inhibits the body's ability to convert blood sugar into fat. The 2002 study described in Wiener klinische Wochenschrif also showed a drop of up to 15 percent of the participants' LDL levels and a 12 percent decrease in total cholesterol levels.
Eating prickly pear fruit or using powdered nopal supplements can be an effective digestive aid in some people. The Barron Report and Nopaltrade.com both report that the plant can prevent ulcers and protect against colon cancer, in part due to its antioxidant qualities. The fruit of the nopal cactus is also a natural source of fiber, which can promote a health digestive system, and may help some people maintain a health weight.